Feature Archive

Gambling Wave Sets Stage for Addiction

Glamorization of gambling may create a new generation of addicts.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

For Christmas this year, Austin Fox, age 13, got exactly what he asked Santa for -- a tabletop casino-style poker set. Like growing numbers of children and adults, the Philadelphia youth has been seduced by the lure of poker.

In fact, Austin plays poker about three times a month. His mother, Susan Hewitt, thought long and hard before deciding upon his Christmas gift. "I decided to let him play as long as it is in moderation and supervised by myself or another parent," she says. "They are not playing with exorbitant amounts of money and I see it as more of a social gathering," she tells WebMD. Still, she admits, "the day I taught him what a poker face was, I thought what am I doing?"

Ante Up Anyone?

Buoyed by the popularity of television shows such as Celebrity Poker Showdown, World Poker Tour, and the World Series of Poker, this card game is more popular than ever. World Poker Tour officials estimate that 100 million people in the U.S. at least occasionally play poker and that's up from 50 million about 18 months ago, according to an article in the Washington Times. Other casino games, too, seem to be experiencing a rebirth of sorts. Las Vegas is once again a preferred vacation destination, online gambling is on fire, cell phones have downloadable blackjack and casino-style gifts are flying off of store shelves.

But does this new generation of gamblers really know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run (as Kenny Rogers would croon)?

"Poker is the new rage among adolescents, and kids as young as 9 are now playing," says JoAnn White, PhD, a therapist who specializes in addiction in Cherry Hill, N.J. "More than 8% of new gamblers may end up having some type of gambling addiction, but we don't know how to identify then in advance," White says.

"You could have bars all over a city and it doesn't mean you should close them down because some people are alcoholics," adds Debra Mandel, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. But "certainly for people who are hooked on gambling, this new wave can and will have negative consequences," she says.

"If it's not going to be a problem, you won't make it one by playing a game," she says. The converse is also true. "People who are prone to addiction will find something to get addicted to," Mandel says.

With most addictions and addictive personalities, the younger the behavior starts the more likely it will continue because they lack inner resources, Mandel says. Risk factors include family history of addiction, depression, or anxiety. "A lot of times addictions are a way to self-medicate an anxiety disorder or depression," she says.

Red Flags for Addiction

Tell-tale signs among children include declining school grades, unaccounted for lost money, or by contrast, a lot of money and new possessions and/or mood swings before or after a game.

In adults, "if you set a limit and repeatedly break that limit, that is a definite indicator that you may have a problem in that area," Mandel tells WebMD. "If you find yourself thinking about the activity with high frequency, that may mean it's a problem."

Other red flags may include "changes in social or intimate relationships so that you become more withdrawn and less interested in people and other kinds of activities that usually brought you pleasure," she says.

Hewitt is on the lookout for such signs in Austin. "He's an excellent student and every season, he plays a sport," she says. "If I saw education or sports faltering or if I found that poker became his main interest, I would probably put a stop to it," she says.

"Obesity is rising and gambling is another sedentary activity that we are supporting rather than saying go out and play sports," White adds.

Gambling Ed?

"Maybe schools should teach about risks of gambling like they do alcohol and drugs," suggests White, who is also a professor of education at Temple University in Philadelphia. "One of the highest selling items for the holiday season was poker games and tables that parents are freely and easily buying for kids, so they are not getting the message that they are getting about drugs and alcohol."

Sure, "playing poker may start out as exciting and glamorous, but children need to be reminded of the positive pay off of hard work and the [resulting] feelings of accomplishment," she stresses.